The Ledgendary Akbar of Bam

October 12, 2008

7/10/08 Train, Kerman – Tehran

‘Sorry, no rooms free tonight!’, the voice rang out from somewhere behind the iron gate.

‘Please, we’ll take anything! Is there space on the roof or in the courtyard? We’ve just walked from the bus station, we’re very tired and just want to rest’.

An elderly man approached us with a wide smile across his long, characteristically wrinkled face. He opened the gate and welcomed us in. ‘Just come have a cup of tea and we’ll see what we an do for you’, he said, in an obviously groomed English accent. We entered the gravel yard covered by a corrugated iron roof, and saw three other backpackers lounging on the wide seats. By the smiles on all their faces and subsequent questions, we realised that they were the only occupants of the hostel, and that the initial words of our host were in jest. The rest of the evening confirmed the mischievous humour and prestigious culture of Akbar, owner and manager of Akbar’s Guesthouse in Bam, as he spouted poetry in Persian and English and boggled out minds for hours with riddles and lateral thinking problems.

Akbar is renowned in tour books no only for his hospitality, but also for the story of his survival of the earthquake that flattened Bam in December 2003, killing over 30,000 people. His guesthouse was destroyed, but thanks to the immediate reaction of some of his guests, many people were pulled alive from the rubble, and only 3 people lost their lives there. Between his jovial bouts of entertainment, he spoke about the incident.

‘The hardest night was the first night. After the guests had been taken to hospitals in Kerman and further north, my family and I set up a tent across the street. We had hardly anything: no shoes, no blankets. Everything was still under the rubble. It was freezing cold, and we all just huddled in a circle around my baby grandson, warming him with our hands and using our bodies to keep the heat round him.’

‘But Bam is rebuilding. There is a lot of work on the Arg (the ancient town of Bam), and it will be more beautiful than ever. They are rebuilding the bazaar, and each school will be uniquely beautiful because every one has received funding from different countries.’

Many hours of our three day stay in Bam were spent in conversation with Akbar, either dodging the midday heat or soaking up the fresh evening air. Constantly, Akbar would oscillate between banal exchanges, often on literature or his visits to Europe (proclaiming his affection for English fried breakfasts and midday pints of Guinness), nostalgic narrations about his heady student days in Shiraz and profound commentaries on his life and loves. One recurring theme was his lamentation of the family pressures that pushed him to marry someone other than his love at the time, a Dutch woman.

‘My mother told me that I could never marry a foreigner. So I had to marry a woman I hardly knew…’ When asked where his wife lived now, he said that he didn’t know exactly: she spent her time alternating between the houses of their five children in Tehran and Kerman. And then he’d sigh heavily, and leave those listening to him in an uncomfortable silence, not sure how to respond to the melancholy that wrought his soul. He made the point of saying that it was not the same today, that today, such strict codes of family and social expectations did not weigh so heavily on the choices of the individual. But he still mentioned, as so many other Iranians have done, the discrepancies between the values of the government and the needs and desires of the people.

At one point, we got onto the topic of divorce. I was speaking about my stepfather’s upcoming birthday, and Akbar inquired whether or not my father had remarried. No, I replied, he was very happy living on his own, with a scattering of female acquaintances in various countries to keep him entertained. Akbar seemed amused, and once again voiced his dismay at having spent over 40 years in a lukewarm marriage for the sake of social expectations. I said that the divorce was the best thing for my parents, even that they waited too long, and that those reasons that many couples give for staying together (‘it’s better for the children’ etc) are shallow, because it is healthier for the children to grow up in a loving environment than upholding the appearances of a stable, nuclear family.

But, as always, I was wary coming across as framing my own social system as ‘better’ than that of my interlocutors. Therefore, I made the point that despite the apparent ‘freedoms’ of the West, there was a growing tendency to not live such freedoms responsibly. I quoted Sarte: ‘On est condamné d’etre libre’. We are condemned to be free, because our freedom makes us responsible for our actions and choices. Without wanting to cater to the image propagated by the Iranian authorities of the West as an entity wrought with the consequences of moral decadence, but wishing to illustrate that every social system has its own woes, I spoke about the problems being faced in contemporary Britain: how in last year’s UNICEF report on Europe, it rated highest in terms of violence, drug use, pregnancy and illiteracy amongst adolescents. I think Akbar, with his Anglophillic attachment to Shakespeare, curries and pints, was shocked to hear this. Even the Slovenian backpacker who was sitting with us said that it was very uncommon to hear of 16-year-old girls falling pregnant in his country, let alone raising them through the benefits of the welfare state.

It is difficult to feel as if one is from a world of which some aspects are idealized by one’s interlocutor-as-Other. As a foreigner, a traveller, a stranger, one carries a certain weight of representation, the representation of difference. It is often tricky to negotiate between what is expected, what is appropriate/acceptable and one’s perceptions on a matter; particularly when one’s culture is shrouded in stigma and romanticisation and one seeks to steer clear of both…

By the time we left Bam, I had grown very fond of Akbar: his sporadic melancholy; his omnipresent nostalgia; the juvenile sparkle in his eye. The day before we left, after failing to get on the desired train and hence forced to delay our journey north by another day, he dismissed our concern with a vaguely familiar anecdote, perhaps slightly reminiscent of chain-mails, but completely suited to his personality:

‘You guys spend so much time worrying about small things when theres really only one important thing in life: either you’re healthy, or you’re sick. If you’re healthy, then you should focus on staying that way. If you’re sick, then either you live, or you die. If you live, then you should concentrate on living life to the full. If you die, then you either go to heaven, or you go to hell. If you go to heaven, then you’ll be so amazed by all the beautiful things that surround you that you’ll be eternally happy. If you go to hell, then you’ll be having so much fun meeting up with old friends from your prior life that you’ll have no time to worry about anything else!’


One comment

  1. Sounds like an extremely interesting man. Love the facebook pictures too.

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